The Rise of the Occult Horror Novel
In 1923, Aleister Crowley, one of the most notorious practitioners of the occult in the Western world, published his occult-novel Moonchild. The novel describes a battle between a group of “white magicians” and “black magicians” over an unborn child. The very concept of an “occult novel” may at first seem strange, but we see that burying occult symbols within the supposedly “safe” medium of fiction is not without precedent. The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz was published in 1616 in Strasbourg, and allegedly contains within it the secret to alchemical formula, the miracle of turning base metal into gold; though, of course, any real occultist knows that this is itself a metaphor: it is the human being that is the base metal that will be transformed into true gold by the process of spiritual awakening. Throughout history, occultists and practitioners have felt it necessary to conceal their methods within fictional landscapes and characters, and this is still true today to an extent. However, there is also something else at work.
The early occult novels, or poems, such as the Chymical Wedding, existed because to deviate from religious norms was a heresy punishable by death or far worse. In our modern era, such practices are no longer illegal, even if they are frowned upon in certain circles. We openly know of many “magicians”, or perhaps the word “sorcerers” would be more apt, in the literary world: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and probably Clive Barker (one need only read The Great & Secret Show to confirm this theory) to name just three. Indeed, there is something of a proliferation of occult literature today, a kind of boom. It’s my belief that this does not so much indicate an abundance of practitioners necessarily, but more that the very nature of the occult places an emphasis on language, symbol, and meaning, which lends itself to telling richer stories. The poet John Keats once said one must “load every rift of your subject with ore”. The writing must be fertile with meaning, not merely a surface level description of what is happening, but an understanding of the forces moving behind it, whether they are emotional, spiritual, or even cosmic.
I’ve recently reviewed several novels with occult themes over at my blog, including Nikki Noir’s masterful coming-of-age Black Planet, Iseult Murphy’s battle of good and evil 7 Weeks In Hell, and Brian Barr’s empire-epic Serpent King, but today I wanted to talk about a much overlooked and incredible occult experience, Will Shakespeare Die? by Gordon James.
This novel was published by The Writing Collective in August 2020. The Writing Collective has been getting a bit of attention recently thanks to our fabulous authors Steve Stred and Ross Jeffery both making the Preliminary Ballot for the Bram Stoker awards, and Ross Jeffery going on to make the final ballot and nominations list! In light of this, I thought it would be a good time to remind people of the existence of this occult-horror gem by TWC.
Will Shakespeare Die? is, as the title suggests, about Shakespeare. However, don’t let that put you off! It’s not just a historical novel about Shakespeare from a historian’s perspective, nor is it simply praise for the Bard. This is a look at the “dark side”, or perhaps one might even use the Jungian term “Shadow Self”, of the famous playwright. It imagines that Shakespeare, in his desperation to know how his own story would end, used occult magic to glimpse the future – with terrible consequences.
Meanwhile, in the present day, a modern cast of characters, based in London, are going about the business of pulling together a play about Shakespeare’s life. Kit Morton, the maverick writer working on “the play”, is having trouble finding inspiration. He, like Shakespeare, turns to the occult to solve his problem. What begins to emerge is a brilliant “double-edged sword” whereby we’re uncertain if the past is influencing the future, or the other way around. There is time travel, of a fashion, but it is not of the H. G. Wells variety and more of the Lovecraftian – A Shadow Out of Time kind, where we inhabit bodies and perspectives not our own. The incantations, rituals, and experiences described in Will Shakespeare Die? seem frighteningly real – which is mostly because they are. The names of power invoked in certain scenes of what might be called “practical magic” are real enough. The Latin, when translated, is true to spellcasting principles. This gives the novel a hair-raising power where we feel that it is not only the character working upon the magic, but that the book is a form of magic working upon us, the reader.
Horror and the occult go hand-in-hand because to confront the darker spiritual forces, even if we believe them to be ultimately psychological, is a frightening thing to do. In Will Shakespeare Die?, the visions of Kit Morton reveal genuinely shocking and disturbing scenes; there are no conventional horror ghosts that one might wave away here. One of the most memorable of these scenes is an Elizabethan Caesarian conducted by the doctor John, and the shadowy Quiney, upon the pregnant Margaret,
“And there before them, all appeared: intestinal coil, bladder sack and the wall of her womb. They gasped – somehow they had invaded a private space. A space where God’s creation was naked to view – a perfect machine, in perfect order, hued in a richness that made the ordinary world seem dull. But a richness never meant to be seen. Obscene. Quiney could not but look and look. And the longer he looked, the more the horror tingled through his fingertips.”
This passage is so powerful not just for the gory reality of it, but also for how it deftly reminds us of the hidden forces beneath things, things “never meant to be seen”. This is deeply occult in principle. The clever rhyming here of “seen” and “obscene” reinforces this by linking the two ideas, a subtle poetic technique buried in the heart of prose.
Another principle explored by Will Shakespeare Die? is the idea of reincarnation or “the karmic wheel”. This is the concept that our souls are born again, over and over, into new times, genders, races, and cultures. Gordon James deftly uses this to draw parallels between our present-day world and Shakespeare’s time, but also to explore its differences. History is repeating itself, but it is also not repeating exactly, and this becomes ultimately quite redemptive – because it opens up the possibilities of a better future, however hard won. A similar concept is explored in another recent Writing Collective title, A Thing With Feathers, in which the principle characters Jonah and Julia are re-incarnations of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, who never met during their time, but perhaps could meet in a modern incarnation.
Both of these novels also explore the role of literature and poetry on shaping our consciousness. In A Thing With Feathers, poetry is a form of secret language used to by two lovers to communicate. The changes in their poetic style and themes denote subtle changes in their feelings and characters over the course of the novel. For Kit and Thom Davenant (and of course Shakespeare) in Will Shakespeare Die?, poetry is a means of exploring the true meaning of “it all”: of life, death, and love – and of gaining a form of eternal life through being immortalised. Poetry, of course, is directly connected to magic, in that meaning is generated not just from the literal, definitional signification, but also through the implied, the juxtaposed, the musically evoked, and the symbolic. Archibald McLeish once said, “a poem should not mean but be”. It is not understood consciously, but subconsciously. Real poetry can reduce me to floods of tears and I don’t really know why. Occult novels operate on the same principle – they touch us in unexpected ways, using unconventional means, because they operate on this more subconscious, and therefore emotional and spiritual, plane.
A lot has changed since Crowley published Moonchild, but what has endured is the potency of magic (or perhaps I should write it magick) and its ability to fascinate and inspire us.
Joseph Sale is a novelist, and writing coach. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his love-letter to fantasy: Save Game. He grew up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
To explore more occult-related phenomenon, then why not head over to his Patreon, where he is forever delving into the sacred and profane.
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Will Shakespeare Die?
Kit Morton is a maverick playwright, working with celebrated director Roz Byron on a new production about the life of William Shakespeare. But when Kit begins to be plagued by visions of the past, visions which reveal dark secrets about Shakespeare no one has previously discovered, he is forced to question his fundamental understanding of who Shakespeare was or is.
Enter magnetic Thom Davenant, the super-sexual lead actor of The Play, who seems a living reincarnation of The Bard.
As the two men covertly work together on bringing the visions Kit sees to life on stage, Kit begins to feel reality slipping away, and life becoming a mirror of events long gone… scenes filled with black magic, time-travel, unrequited love, and sordid adultery.
Shakespeare’s true descendant may well be alive today, but there are those who do not wish for the line to be discovered. A dark spider waits to catch Thom, motivated by revenge. Kit must do all that he can to save the living heir of William Shakespeare, before it’s too late, and history repeats itself.
Will Shakespeare Die? was described by Richard Thomas, author of Disintegration and Breaker, and Thriller Award Nominee, as “… a powerful, hilarious, and twisted story. Satire and farce wrapped in dark magic and science fiction, it takes classic theatrical elements and turns them upside down. I don’t even LIKE Shakespeare, and this story kept me on my toes while I laughed, shook my head in wonder, and turned the pages with excitement over what might happen next. A wild ride for sure.”